Sunday, January 17, 2021

Alone with My Thoughts….and My Fears

As the months of mask wearing and lockdowns drone on, how are you doing?

Last spring, when we locked down and started to fight the virus, my focus was on survival.  I needed to make a certain amount of money every day just to keep the bills paid, so 100% of my energy was on getting that income.

I made it, thanks to making the most of the opportunities in front of me, the stimulus checks, and a tax refund.  Now I’m juggling three different jobs and starting to rebuild my emergency fund.  I’m good until April, when hopefully there will be an uptick in tutoring.  There won’t be a repeat of last spring’s grade forgiveness this year.

As the immediate needs cleared, the pandemic….didn’t.  One of the biggest negatives to this lengthy isolation is that I’m spending way too much time alone with my thoughts, especially as the cold winter weather kept me indoors and at home.  I realized I have spent so much time in survival mode—most of the past decade—that I have failed to do a lot of the planning and maintenance to avoid bigger crises.

Instead, when the unexpected happens, I fly into a panicked tizzy.  I can’t think, I can’t breathe, I can’t find my way out of the box.  I become a drama queen of epic proportions, making impulsive decisions that end up costing energy and time and money I don’t have, my mind racing through all the possibilities and breakdowns and failures and what else could go wrong.

No wonder I often feel like I’ve built a house of cards with my life, constantly holding my breath, waiting for something to blow it all down with one puff of air. 

When you have a 20 step procedure to make a cup of coffee in the morning and have a panic attack every time your laptop reboots, everything is a ticking time bomb of calamity.  The efforts to diffuse one stressor creates a downward spiral of compulsions and rules and steps.  Suddenly, I’m trapped within the maze of my own creation, filled with dead ends and monsters with no way to escape.

Well, there are plenty of ways to escape, from going out for coffee or playing on my phone or watching Marvel movies or just dreaming.  I’ve spent more time than I care to admit using these distractions to avoid the inevitable, but I always end up back in the maze with no end in sight and the time bombs even closer to 0:00.

The only way out of the maze of my mind…is taking one step at a time, moving to ease the anxiety and prepare for the emergencies.  Like getting my oil changed.  Scheduling the physical that was supposed to be my birthday present last year.  (I’m going to have to figure out this calf-cramping issue if I have any hope of qualifying for Boston, right?)  Even the baby step of making an Outlook task with whatever needs to get done, so I can start listing the steps that need to take place, gets me closer to the exit.

What I see every morning when I wake up and get out of bed.
You cannot live in fear and succeed.

If I am going to live the life of my dreams, I cannot be so afraid of what life could throw at me. 

Friday, January 15, 2021

The Labyrinth

Lost

In the labyrinth of my head

The giant maze of all my responsibilities

My brain on overload

 

I need to press forward

To stay ahead of my bills

To stay ahead of my life

Before the house of cards falls down

 

It’s like the game we played

On the first PC we owned

An IBM 286

Walking around a castle gathering treasures and fighting villains

With no end, no victory

 

So many twists and turns

Too many dead ends

And the fear of finding a monster around the corner

There are no good surprises here

 

I rush down the path

Many miles traveled

Just to find another wall

Turn around and go back the way I came

So much time wasted

 

A monster comes out of nowhere.

Emergency!  Panic!

Rush, rush, rush to another corridor

Completely lost in the chaos

Start again from square one

 

I need to find the map

The guide, the key

Until then I am trapped

Unable to escape

 

I tire easily, my eyes close.

I dream about being free

Away from the monsters and cold, thick walls

Happy.

 

Until a monster roars me awake

Back into the darkness

I continue on, step by step

Trying to find the exit

Before the maze consumes my mind

Thursday, December 31, 2020

The Grind

I’ve been a chemistry tutor for over five years.  What started as helping out a friend has become a new career, and I’ve added math, including calculus, to the mix this year.  Gosh, I so missed solving hard math problems.

Many people think they’re bad at math because they don’t have all the answers instantaneously.  They don’t even know what skill they need to start a problem.  Chemistry is challenging because it’s usually the first time you’re using math to solve science—an entire year of those dreaded word problems.

One of the many secrets to mastering math and chemistry isn’t a formula or a cheat sheet or having mad skills.  It’s being able to attack each problem, each test question.  Look at what you’re given, look at what they want from you, and go from A to B.

How do you do that?  Practice.  The practice of doing many, many problems until you are able to attack anything that might be thrown at you.

It’s no different than anything else you practice—an instrument, a sport, an art.  In order to master any subject, you have to do the grind.  The grind of waking up and doing the same thing day after day.  The grind of focusing on perfecting each little detail.  The grind of continuing to move forward so slowly that you see more failure than success.  The grind of brushing yourself off after each failure and getting back on the path.

Over the years, people are in awe of my chemistry degree, like I have this amazing talent.  To be honest, it’s just that my love of the subject gave me the determination to grind out problem after problem.  I can’t sleep on an unsolved chemistry or math or computer programming problem, often waking at 2 am to finish what I started.  It just tumbles in my brain, crying to be solved, just like the baseball player down the street throwing curveballs at a net late on a summer evening or the oboe player next door playing the same measure of music over and over again on a Saturday morning.

Of course, it’s easy for someone with a passion for baseball or a talent for playing the oboe to do the grind, but have you ever heard someone express a huge passion for being a cog in a Corporate America cube farm?  How do you grind at something you don’t love?  That doesn’t come easily for you?

How many of you loved school when you were in second grade, but hated it by the time you were in high school because the classwork was just so hard?  How many of you grew up playing Little League or taking dance lessons or studying piano, but quit when it seemed that you had hit your limit? 

I joke that I’m the utility ballplayer of life because I’ve done so many things, but quit before I had mastered them.  I’m competent in a lot of skills, but not exceptional.  My resume goes from research chemist to quality consultant to executive director of a political party to tutor.  I’ve taken dance lessons and piano lessons and figure skating lessons.  I played clarinet in the school band, nine years total.  Even where I do have talents, math and science, didn’t help me push through the challenges in college.  I graduated with my degree, but barely.

It’s hard to believe that a year ago, I was on top of the world with my running, having negatively split New York through the hardest part of the course to break 5 hours and get my second fastest time.  2020 was supposed to be the year I took a break from racing to focus on how I could get that Boston qualifying time.  Then the world shut down, and my focus turned to survival.  As the months tickd by, and races continue to be cancelled, delayed, postponed, and modified, I thought about my quest to finish all six majors by my 50th birthday.  The deferments, the cancellations were definitely going to impede my ability to grab slots in Toyko or London once things returned to normal.  There’s usually half a million people who apply for those lotteries in a normal year, but what now?  As for Boston, losing one, if not two years for charity runners will make it even harder to get one of those coveted spots, and I’m so busy trying to survive that running has taken a back seat, derailing my efforts to qualify.

I have five years to get into three major marathons.  I’m barely scraping by, financially, my mental health is a mess, and there are now millions of runners who didn’t get the spots they thought they’d get this year.  How on earth am I going to finish this quest?

Then I thought of my students, past, present, and future.  How many of them feel dumb at school?  How many hate doing homework because they just don’t even understand the lesson?  How many want to give up and say they can’t do chemistry or math?

Tutoring isn’t just about AP exams and letter grades.  It’s about helping these kids overcome challenges, solve problems, and learn how they learn so they can apply these skills for the rest of their life.  Odds are that you won’t have to use the ideal gas law or Rolle’s Theorem in your 40s, but the skills that got you through those assignments and tests, will.

Just like my quest; it is more about the journey more than the end result.

In 2021, I need to figure out how to do the grind when it’s something that isn’t easy or fun or exciting or interesting.  After some soul-searching, I came up with three things I’d like to accomplish this year for three very different reasons.  They are all going to take that grind, though in different ways:

  1. British accent.  As a high school drama kid, I was always jealous of my classmates who could switch into a British accent without even thinking about it.  When I got a part in the fall play and had to do five lines in accent, I spent hours and hours listening to Brits read books on tape, trying to figure out the intonations and pronunciations, but never feeling like I got it right.  Now, with YouTube and Zoom and all sorts of tools (there has to be an app, right?), as well as maturity and wisdom, perhaps I can master something that I was convinced I couldn’t.
  2. Daily routine.  It’s been a year, right?  As I navigated the roller coaster of part time work and furloughs, I saw a lot of my regular maintenance routines falling apart from running to brushing my hair every morning.  I’ve put down the list of things I do want to accomplish every day.  It may not be fun or exciting, but going through the steps to get my life reset will do wonders for my mental health.  (If you were wondering about running, it’s part of this routine.  Baby steps.)
  3. Blogs and Coffee.  As part of my daily routine, I’m reading blogs I find on Twitter over my morning coffee.  I had a great idea a couple of days ago to use the hashtag #blogsandcoffee to share the blogs that I’m reading.  Now, I’ve had a lot of great ideas over the years that get lost on the wayside for a number of reasons, so my goal here is to post #blogsandcoffee every single day in 2021, even if it’s a tweet to say why there wasn’t a #blogsandcoffee.  Maybe it will develop a following, maybe it won’t, but at least I ground through the challenges and finished what I started.

Unlike most New Years resolutions, which have an endpoint, I am creating a focus, an intention, to grow as a person, regardless of whether or not I meet my goals.  If I figure out how to grind through things I don’t enjoy, it’s powerful—and it’s a power I can teach my students so they can succeed, whether it’s third grade math or AP Physics.

Also, rather than a personal, specific goal, it’s a theme we can all take together.  Let’s face it.  2020 was a struggle in many ways.  We survived, but not without damage.  We’re not the same people who started this year, but to continue to thrive, we need to continue to evolve.  We need to grind through our challenges, whether it’s AP Calculus or working from home or figuring out how to change the oil on the car.  What are you needing to grind through in 2021? 

Friday, December 25, 2020

I Dream...

 

I dream….

Of always having perfectly manicured nails,

A daily facial and makeup routine,

More than two ways to do my hair.

I dream….

Of a home where everything has a spot,

Nothing accumulates,

All comfy and cozy and warm and safe.

I dream….

Of everything going as planned,

Not having to put out fire after fire,

Because all the preventative things were done on time.

I dream….

          Of feeling healthy and powerful,

          Not afraid that every little ache and pain,

          Is something more serious.

I dream….

          Of a month where I don’t have to worry about money,

          Or paying the bills,

          Able to do the work I love.

I dream….

          Of seeing a woman who exudes confidence and success,

          When I look at the mirror.

I dream….

          Of having a surplus of time and energy,

          To do nice things for my friends,

          And to help those who are struggling.

I dream….

          Of a neat, ordered life where nothing is out of place,

          Where I can give more than I take,

And my mind is finally at peace.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Please, Don’t Fix Me

Last time, I talked about how I’m putting stuff I want out of my life on FB Marketplace.  I’ve had people over the past couple of years suggest to me that they would come over, clear out the stuff, and wouldn’t I feel so much better without the clutter?  Isn’t that just an easy thing to do, and then everything would be fixed?

To be honest, no.  This process of choosing an item, listing it, and selling it is giving me a great deal of pleasure.  As well as a few extra dollars for the savings account.  I enjoy the ability to give each item the time I need to make a decision, instead of having the stress of making hundreds of decisions in one day. 

Besides, why do I have to complete this project so quickly? 

I don’t have a spouse.  I don’t have children.  My cat just doesn’t care.  (Seriously, as long as she gets one spoonful of wet food with gravy, lap time, and scritches, she’s pretty happy.)

Nobody is depending on me to finish by a certain date, so it’s nice to have something that is completely on my terms, within my complete control, according to my plan.  So little in life is like that, and instead of stressed, I’m calmed by this process.  It’s been an adventure instead of a chore.

I mean, who doesn't want an antique rocking chair?
(Santa, lamp, and pan not included.)

Perhaps that’s why, when people ask me for marathon running advice, my response is simple:  own your training journey, because that’s what will take you through race day.  You need to do what makes sense for you, not what other people tell you to do.

I’m not running those 26.2 miles….you are, so you need to feel proud and determined and successful as you wait in the starting corrals.  That happens when you prepare on your own terms, taking the information you like and ignoring the information that doesn’t work for you. 

It’s such different advice than I’ve received through my journey in this world.  People like to fix problems, so when they hear about an issue, they often blurt out the solution that works for them, whether it’s why you’re stuck around a 5:30 marathon or have a cluttered house or are struggling with a relationship or unhappy at work or have a phone with 30% charge on it.  They so want to alleviate the anxiety in the air, and it worked for them, so why not everyone else?

Well, we’re all different.  All. Of Us. 7. Billion. Humans.  We are all going to have different dreams, different challenges, different belief systems, different ways of seeing a problem.  Your “simple” solution may not be the best for the person with ADD.  Or dyslexia.  And definitely not someone with OCD.

Instead of jumping to fix everyone else’s issues, why not just listen?  Why not just ask questions to help clarify?  Why not help the person find what works for them instead of telling them what they should do?  And if they say, “I’m okay, thank you,” let it go.

While the solution may seem completely obvious to you, there’s power in the process of problem solving.  When you give someone the space to own their solution, you give them the confidence to grow and learn and be even better than they ever imagined.  It’s an uncomfortable space, letting someone sit with their issue that appears easily solvable, but usually, the end result is beyond your expectations.

Instead of asking someone to conform to you, you’re empowering them to be exceptional.

So please don’t fix me.  I’m on my own path to healing, thank you very much, and as I grow from this process, great things will happen.  Well, at least a few hundred dollars from FB Marketplace sales….